“Develop your academic writing career online!” the friendly-looking website said.
“What a smashing idea,” I thought. Freelancing. That’s the ticket. When the baby naps, I write – and thereby make an effort towards maintaining mental acuity during the maternity fugue that friends and colleagues warned me about.
With more and more people opting to take career breaks in pursuit of flexibility and autonomy, freelance or consultancy projects sound like ideal solutions. And, in the erratic, “flexible” employment market, freelance opportunities are many and varied.
However, the competition is stiff and the expected standards are high. Finding such work online typically involves paying for the services of a brokerage website, which invites contributors to bid in response to tenders, encouraging the undercutting of competitors’ deadlines and fees, and an associated expectation of immediate delivery. “Freelance”, in many sectors, now seems synonymous with “always on-demand”, surely the very antithesis of its traditional meaning of self-determined hours.
In addition, as I was about to learn, a critical eye and a healthy level of suspicion are vital in separating the beauties from the beasts. The aforementioned friendly-looking website seemed reasonable enough. It described how the parent company prided itself on its reliability, integrity and the high standard of content offered by its contributors. It wasn’t until I spoke with a company representative over the phone that alarm bells began to ring.
“What was it specifically that interested you in our company?” they asked.
“Well, I’ve been looking for freelance writing opportunities while taking a career break and, as an academic, I was particularly interested to come across your company, which seems to specialise in this area.”
“Ah, OK. The majority of our customers are students who are looking for assistance with pieces of academic work. Is that something you would be interested in?”
In a previous life as an academic support lecturer, this was my bread and butter: helping students develop techniques to demystify unfamiliar academic conventions and to enhance their composition, structuring and research skills. This was done under the ever-watchful eye of academic governance, quality assurance processes and safeguards to ensure that any work submitted for assessment was entirely the student’s own. I warned students, in a “thar be monsters” kind of way, about the dark path of not being entirely responsible for their own work: “There are places that will sell you essays or write them for you. But don’t do it, kids – you’ll get caught. And it’s despicable,” I preached to 500 first years. And yet here I was, interfacing with the very pinnacle of academic misconduct.
When I asked the company rep to clarify that she was, in fact, inviting me to write students’ assessed essays in return for cash, she replied with a cold, hard “yes”. I felt tarnished by association, and heartbroken to have the existence of those academic monsters confirmed. I have subsequently unearthed more of these “writing opportunities”; again, all very well-presented, vague, honest-seeming endeavours.
My curiosity led me to wonder how, if the contributor side of these operations was so opaque, the “product” was marketed to potential customers. I was taken aback to find a fairly brazen array of essay-writing services, including one in the city where I live and work, that seem perfectly happy to accept payment in return for a piece of academic writing.
I know that these factory-farmed abominations are no match for academic policies, plagiarism-detection initiatives and a depth of reading in their fields that allows my colleagues to spot inaccurate or superficial uses of knowledge. But the temerity of the people behind them still astounds me. You will, dear reader, no doubt share my shock/laughter when I reveal that I came across one of the vendors trading under the name Essay Shark.
The extent of this industry is evidently why its commissions have made their way into the tenders offered by freelance brokering sites, and are listed alongside copywriting, proofreading and blog posting. Their acceptance seems highly dispiriting at a time when higher education really doesn’t need any more enemies.
A petition to ban “essay writing mills” has recently been started by an educational reform campaigner called Marcus J. Ball. This is a heartening move in terms of calling attention to such highly problematic practices, and also offers hope that the academy isn’t willing to stand for nicely dressed cheating.
So my foray into the freelance world hasn’t been nearly as freeing as I’d hoped. But it’s not like the baby naps anyway, so I guess it just wasn’t for me.
Vic Boyd is currently on extended leave from her position at the Glasgow School of Art. Her research on student digital confidence was included in Inquiry-Based Learning for Multidisciplinary Programs: A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators (2015).